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Does shopping in high heels encourage smarter spending?

Kelly Dilworth

Struggling to keep your spending in check? Next time you hit the mall, you may want to swap out your running shoes for a pair of high heels, a new study suggests.

The study, released Aug. 26 by Brigham Young University, found that shoppers who are more in tune with their balance — either by wearing high heels or by standing on one foot while scanning a shelf — are more likely to compare prices and choose a middle-of-the road option (such as a TV with a mid-range price point).

“Consumers experiencing a heightened sense of balance are more likely to choose compromise options,” wrote study authors Jeffrey S. Larson and Darron M. Billeter in a paper published in the August issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

Does shopping in high heels encourage smarter spending?

Rather than reach for the most expensive item on the shelf — or the cheapest and potentially least well-made option — shoppers who are trying to keep their balance tend to split the difference, say Larson and Billeter, and choose items that are priced somewhere in the middle.

That’s true whether the shoppers are wearing stilettos or trying a new Yoga pose, they add. Any activity that makes you feel slightly off kilter may cause you to shop differently than you would otherwise, say the Brigham Young University researchers.

For example, “shopping that occurs after riding an escalator is likely to be affected by the balance activation that occurred on stepping off the moving stairs,” wrote Larson and Billeter. “Women who shop while wearing high heels feel less stable than women wearing flat shoes and are likely to make different purchase decisions as a result. Purchase decisions on a cruise ship are likely to be affected by the ship’s movements. Walking on icy sidewalks during winter shopping trips might also alter decisions.”

Larson and Billeter hypothesize that the physical sensations of trying to keep your balance — and the thoughts that are associated with making sure you’re standing upright — subconsciously affect how you view the items that are for sale and so influence your decision-making.

Because your subconscious mind is thinking about how you can avoid falling too far in one direction, your conscious mind may, in turn, be telling you to skip an item that’s priced too high or too low.

“The results demonstrate that influential cognitive processes are at play as people stumble through life, regardless of whether those stumblings are literal or metaphorical,” the researchers write.

Larson and Billeter arrived at their conclusion after conducting multiple experiments in which they manipulated study subjects’ sense of balance and asked them to choose between several different products.

Environment plays a key role in “choice”

As Larson and Billeter acknowledge in their paper, the researchers’ study is far from the first to show that our physical environments can have a significant impact on how we make decisions.

A 2013 Belgian study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, for example, showed that shoppers who frequent a bookstore that smells faintly like chocolate are more likely to stop and browse, rather than head straight for the book they want.

Similarly, a study published this year in the Journal of Retailing found that simple, single-note fragrances encourage shoppers to spend more than they otherwise would.

Numerous older studies, meanwhile, have found that playing music in the background is an effective way to get impulse shoppers to add more to their carts.

As Larson and Billeter noted in their paper: “Consumer decisions, which typically require cognitions about abstract information, can be altered by the physical environment in which they occur.”

They can’t be altered by that much, however.

Consumer preference matters more

Curious whether striking a tree pose while shopping online would magically dent my own personal preference for the cheapest duds (as Larson and Billeter’s study would suggest), I logged onto Zappos.com and tried standing on one foot while scrolling through rows of shoes with varying prices.

Perhaps, I wondered, while I struggled to stay upright, my bad habit of picking shoes so cheap I often have to replace them within a year will be temporarily curbed. Rather than pick the cheapest shoe available, I’ll find myself drawn to the slightly more expensive, compromise option.

Instead, my calf began to ache. My torso wobbled. And no matter how hard I tried to steer my gaze toward other options, I still felt drawn to the shoes with the cheapest prices.

Maybe I just wasn’t doing it right?

There may be something to Larson and Billeter’s assertion that physical sensations can subtly influence a shopper’s mood. However, the idea that feeling off-keel can actually steer people toward items they wouldn’t otherwise choose seems, to me, like a pretty big stretch.

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  • Nice article. In life we need to be wise in spending our money.